Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.

 

Rooted?

I’m the sort of person who always has a plan F.  While it doesn’t represent my three previous failed attempts or the well-raked but now choko-free planting site, the following gallery of photos showing my recent efforts to grow a choko vine on my back fence, gives a hint why.

You might ask “Why the mirror? Do chokos favour selfies? Are they the body builders of the plant world, only able to bulk up while constantly checking their form?”.  A good question.  You might also ask “Why try to grow the choko in the first place, the vegetable equivalent of the Milk Arrowroot biscuit, a food you will only eat when the pantry is otherwise bare?” but let’s not go there now.

My garden gleams with reflected light in hopes that a sudden glimpse of a rival will put the wind up your peckish but flighty brush turkey and make him head for the hills.  I fell for this urban myth, and heavy rubbish day presented any number of opportunities to add a sparkle to my vegetable beds.

While a looking glass in the okra patch is aesthetically pleasing, the sad end to to my months of steadfast efforts to grow a choko vine suggests that mirrors may fall into the same category as companion planting – a charming idea lightly resting on a flimsy foundation of optimism and anecdotal evidence.

So I have undertaken my mission of establishing a sweet potato patch with a certain sense of doom. Yes, it is true that with absolutely no attention from me, over summer last year some long-neglected tuber produced a morass of sweet potato vines so resilient that it became my 2014 nominee for “plant most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse“.

But that was then and this is now.  Yesterday I saw not one, not two, but four baby brush turkeys in the yard during one 10 minute period.  If the undead favour brush turkey brains, the zombie apocalypse is starting to seem like a more and more appealing prospect.

There’s a hint of Hammer Horror about sweet potato slips, enhanced, I think, by the monster themed birthday candles I used to keep the tubers suspended in glasses of water.  Yet surprisingly, in the months of watchful waiting, there was only one horror movie moment.  A classic: Empty-house-Terrifying-things-hidden-in-enclosed-spaces-Heart-in-Mouth – When Sweet Potato Tubers Go Bad. There was a potential splatter event as I emptied the gut-churning water into the sink.  But fortunately, there were survivors.

So, time to plant out the sweet potato slips.  Needless to say, I won’t be  relying on Alice nipping through the looking glass to rescue my sweet potatoes.

Instead, I’m pinning my hopes on a trampoline. It has been a much loved trampoline.  But when you find lichen growing on on your backyard play equipment it’s often a sign that it’s time for it to move on to the next phase of its lifecycle.  In this case, in the fiscally constrained post-Christmas period, as low-rent vegetable exclusion netting.

Yes, that does mean that the kids can no longer leap and bound with gay abandon knowing that the nets around the tramp will catch them.  They now have the “tough love” type of trampoline we had in the 70s and 80s where the threat of a broken leg or fractured spine was ever-present.  But sometimes it comes down to a choice between securing the future of your offspring and your root vegetables.

So yesterday, in the foggy early morning, I set out to the bottom of the garden with everything prepared.  Commemorative real ale glass full of rooted sweet potato slips.  Length of lichen-encrusted trampoline netting.  Bucket full of broken terracotta pots, previously used to secure a now-partially composted Christmas tree.  And hope.  And back in the kitchen, a whole bunch of extra sweet potato slips.  Because when hope fades, there’s always Plan F.

Death toll on the windowsill

This punnet of celery is 900 years 9 months old.  It’s a heritage variety, lovingly protected from the wicked hybridising ways of multinationals, raised without recourse to superphosphate or pesticides, its seeds collected and harboured by sequence of people of good will, finally given a new home on a windowsill that has scarcely ever seen any form of domestic cleaning product.   And look how it has repaid me and all the hippies before me that sought to give it life.

At some point during the epic period of time it has taken this recalcitrant celery to grow to its current puny dimensions, I  succumbed to a pack of genetically modified and chemically drenched celery seedlings from Bunnings.  The evil celery has been planted out, watered, mulched, fertilised, endured winter, had a spring growth, been mulched again, and seen the inside of at least three soups.  But it’s all too hard for our home-sown hero.

I wish I could claim that this diminutive plant was a radical experiment in developing kitchen-garden bonsai, or the result of a daring hybridisation of celery and genetic material from Methuselah, 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristle-cone pine, which holds the current record for the oldest tree in the world.  Indeed, I’m sure any hypothetical future celery sticks that might be harvested from this uninspiring specimen would have the same flavour and texture as a lump of a four thousand year old pine bark.

Sadly, however, this is no horticultural break-through.  It’s normal service. This is how we raise seeds in our Berowra backyard.  The fact that the celery seedling is still clinging to life at all is, in truth, a triumph.

Here’s a typical sequence of events.

1. I observe a change in the seasons: a warm breeze, the hint of autumn rain.  It’s late winter/ late summer – just the right time to put in some seedlings.  I resolve to grow some.

2. Weeks pass.  Sometimes months.  Eventually in a late-night frenzy of consumer excitement, I order about a hundred packets of seeds from the prompt, informative and ever-reliable Green Harvest: eighteen types of beans, twelve types of rocket, cherry tomatoes shaped like a banana, a rubik’s cube and the Sphinx, vegetables I don’t like/have never heard of/have never successfully grown/wouldn’t know what to do with even if I succeeded in growing them.

3. Seeds arrive in my postbox in a flash.  I file them carefully in an enormous box that previously stored floppy disks, fastidiously organised by season of planting and vegetable family, and filled with a panoply of seed packets, mostly well past their “use by” date. Weeks pass. Sometimes years.

4. One Sunday afternoon, in deep denial about the terminal decline of the weekend, I plant out at least four punnets of each of the hundred varieties.  Space on the kitchen windowsill is now at a premium.

5. Within a week or two, nearly all of the seeds emerge and turn into thriving little plantlets, thrusting up into the light, energised by the stored resources of their subterranean seed.  They grow a second thrilling set of leaves and sometimes a third.

… and then suddenly everything stops. It’s as if we’ve had a sneaky overnight visit from a vegetable hating comic-book super villain with a freezing deathray.

6. Tormented by the failure of my seedlings to grow even a millimetre, I am prompted to do one of the following:

(a) Anxiously over-water them. They rot.  I throw them into the compost heap.

(b) Vengefully serve them up a little tough love (ie, neglect to water them).  They maintain the same utter stasis but look a little bit crispier.  Eventually, I throw them into the compost heap.

(c) Bemusedly supply them with more light and gentle healing rain by putting them outside in the Valley Of The Shadow of Death (aka the zone at the edge of the carport).  From here they will inevitably tumble to their doom, knocked down by a promenading brush turkey, a pair of wrestling brush-tailed possums, a child with a skipping rope and/or RB on a bee line for the first cup of tea at the end of the working day.  I swear a lot, scrape up the seed raising mix and throw it into the compost heap.

(d) Despairingly give up on producing decent sized seedlings and abandon the flimsy weaklings to their fate in the bottom of the garden.  The following day will be the hottest of the year and by six in the evening the underprepared seedlings have been vaporised, leaving, at best, one or two limp greyish leaves draped over the mulch as a cruel reminder of the three months I’ve just wasted.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.  Surely.

I have some ideas for diminishing the windowsill death toll.  This is a non-exhaustive list and I welcome further suggestions.

1. Defrosting my static seedlings with Essence of Death (TM) compost tea.  Treasure the Light Sussex drinks it with gusto and she has grown to an enormous size so surely it must give the seedlings a little vim and vigour.

2. Treating the babies to the occasional little holiday in the veggie garden, to suck up the rays and meet new friends.

3. Experiment with newspaper pots so plant and container can go, holus bolus, into the ground.  The only outstanding issue with this plan, given the volume of newsprint bought by our household, is whether plant pots made of iPads and laptops are biodegradeable.

4. Plant everything out under veggie nets or horticultural fleece.  With lucky, the seedlings, however feeble and under-developed, will transpire a bit less in those tricky first days.  At worst, this will both delay the moment when I realise that it’s all been in vain and provide a fitting burial shroud.

Blood on the mulberries

This means war!  Or at least a humanitarian mission with military elements.

Just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by their generous assistance with your passive solar, suddenly the bowerbirds turn against you.   One minute they’re giving the liquidambar a light trim, the next they’ve descended on your mulberry tree and stripped it bare.

Mulberries are perfect backyard trees.  They’re easy to grow, fruit without chilly weather, and produce berries in spring before the fruitfly really get into gear.  Kids love to eat them: the Halloween themed blood-stained hands afterwards are a bonus.  You can feed them to silkworms which sorts out any number of school projects (and if you’re that kind of person you can weave your own scarves or caftans).  Chooks happily clean up the spoil.  And you never ever see mulberries in the shops – when they’re ripe they’re so soft and juicy they’re unshippable.  You have to eat them warm, straight off the tree.

And if that’s not enough, they also make a great spot for a diamond python’s mid-morning nap.

mulberry bush and snakey

There’s not much you can do wrong with mulberries, or so they say.  You’ve gotta love trees about which it can honestly be said: “you cannot kill them”.  You have to prune them for new growth and berries, but hacking randomly does seem to more or less work, though the outcome might be described less as “a classic open-centred vase shape” and more as “an ugly mess”.

The only bit of advice that people regularly give about mulberry trees is to avoid planting them near paths “to avoid stains”.  Given the chaotic state of our garden, I smiled smugly at this.  And then planted mine right next to the washing line.  Oops.

I know, I know, my Hick’s Fancy should have been netted against the birds (given that they can be weedy, this is probably a good idea for ecological as well as harvest-maximising reasons).  But the bowerbirds haven’t stopped at the mulberry.  They’ve also had a good go at the grapes up the granny flat wall and the kiwifruit vines on the “solar pergola”.  Exclusion netting is all very well but short of getting a great big net dropped from a helicopter to drape over the whole house and yard, there’s only so much you can do.  Thinking about it, that actually sounds like a lot of fun.  All I need is some air support.

Bowerbirds: snacking for solar gain

Before the fall

Before the fall: it’s always sunnier on the other side of the fence

The gang’s back.  Loads of satin bowerbirds in the garden at the moment.  I’ve seen a couple of mature males, with their glossy blue-black feathers and gorgeous indigo eyes, but most of the robotic whistles, clicks, churrs and cracks in the trees seem to be the “greens” – juvenile males and females, hanging out in a pack.

I’ve heard grim stories about the antics of bowerbirds in the veggie garden.  Apparently they like to lull the backyard grower into a false sense of security and then swoop in and devastate your greens.  But I’m feeling kind of relaxed on that front.  After the brush turkeys exhumed my long awaited Hass avocado treelet, and my big girls, the young-bloods, the prodigious egg-layers, started lounging around under the baby banana trees, making eyes at my kale and chomping on every “poisonous” rhubarb leaf the moment it unfurled, I’ve decided to go totally Christo.  Every seed, every seedling, every newly planted tuber has its own little  blanket of horticultural fleece.  Anything growing that’s remotely likely to appeal to the poultry palate is swathed in netting.

The one upside of the chooks’ blithe disregard of the garden fence is the complete and total elimination of trad from the veggie patch.  Three months ago our spindly raspberry canes and brave little Nightingale persimmon were drowning in a lush wash of juicy stems and emerald leaves, even as the ground slowly dehydrated around them. But now – nada.  A few stems scattered around, waiting to reroot after the rain but not a leaf to be seen.  It’s all very satisfying.

So it’s not all bad when your flock take to the greenery.  The bowerbirds haven’t got a chance of getting my broadbeans.  But with their leaf-picking ways, they are doing sterling work for the environment.

Brushturkey in liquidambar

Brush turkey roosting in our poor denuded liquidambar

Their latest hang-out is the neighbour’s liquidambar tree – gorgeous and looming, throwing a great long shadow across our ice-box house all autumn. Basking in the sunshine on the other side of the fence, it steadfastly refuses to shed its leaves, months and months after our poor overhung specimen has shivered and shaken off its own.  And then, when the last ruby shreds are about to be blown from its branches, and the winter sun finally promises to warm our August days, the bloody thing starts growing leaves again!

But never fear, Super Satin Bowerbird is here!  I can’t prove definitively that their main objective was improving our passive solar gain but after closely studying these photographs for insights into bowerbird psychology and culinary habits, it certainly looks like it.

Vernacular architecture in the suburbs pt.1

Moments of vernacular garden design from around Berowra.  With the council cleanup coming up, I expect to see more suburban creativity soon.